“Christian” Youth Need The Gospel Too

“I’m tired of being what you want me to be
Feeling so faithless, lost under the surface
I don’t know what you’re expecting of me
Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes . . .

(Chorus)

I’ve become so numb I can’t feel you there
Become so tired so much more aware
I’m becoming this all I want to do
Is be more like me and be less like you

While likely sung about the desires of an aspiring artist chafing against the aspirations of traditional parental expectations, Linkin Park’s 2003 hit Numb touched the nerve of teenage angst that spread beyond artistic suppression into a virtual generational posture.  And it is occurring in the church too.  Why are so many “Christian” teens numb and abandoning the faith (some studies report 90% attrition rates)?

The kind of Christianity many teens are exposed to  (and abandoning) simply does not have the depth, the power, or the freedom to transform them.  The landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, and the subsequent commentary that has flowed from it, tell us that the typical American teenager’s religion is “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.”  The five points of MTD are as follows:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

In an interview with CNN, Princeton Professor and author of Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, labels the Christianity teens are exposed to today as an “imposter” Christian faith, going on to say, “If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust . . . Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about.”

Christian teens are feeling numb because the power of the gospel is absent in such a theology.  A theology of “avoid the big sins and cover up the little ones”, and “be nice” cannot transform.  It can, however,  confuse and numb.  What is missing is an awesomely holy God and an honest evaluation of the wreckage our lives are because of our sin and estrangement from Him.  What is missing is the message that we are so sinful and wrecked that the Son of God had to die for us but we are so prized by God that he was glad to die for us.  What is missing is the gospel and its liberating transforming message of justification by faith in the finished work of Christ.

In Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace argues that the primary element of continuous renewal in the life of a Christian and a Christian body is the perpetual unfurling  of the gospel of justification by faith in the complete and completed work of Christ.  But this message, which Paul says, “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . .” can and has been adulterated by sinful people.  He continues, “three aberrations from the biblical teaching on justification – cheap grace, legalism, and moralism – still dominate the church today.” (p.100)

Cheap grace removes sanctification as a necessary outflow of a regenerated heart.  Here Jesus saves me from the penalty of sin but isn’t powerful enough or interested enough to deliver me from its power. Legalism is an overcorrection of cheap grace but  throws the believer onto “auxiliary methods of assurance” such as close inspection of one’s works or obsessive introspection for evidence of the Spirit’s work rather than trusting in the finished work of Christ.  The legalist may trust in Jesus’ work but is resting in their own.  Moralism is the virtual (or actual) abandonment of the necessity or usefulness of the justifying work of Christ.   For the moralist, Jesus is example, teacher, and maybe even “lord,”  but not Savior.

Imagine a “christian” teen singing the opening lines of Numb (curiously,  the music video is filmed inside a church.)  Tired of being what you want me to be, feeling so faithless, lost under the surface . . . I don’t know what you’re expecting of me . . . Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes.”    None of the three aberrations of the gospel message help a heart like this.  Cheap grace trains them to ignore a life that is unchanged and so deadens the conscience.  Legalism confuses the heart because it can never know how much or how sincere a work is suffient.  Moralism fatigues the heart because there is no internal motivation to carry on, plus it is a lot more fun to sin.

What do Christian teens need? In short, they need the gospel.  They need leaders and teachers whose lives have been transformed from the inside out and demonstrate a life of New Covenant obedience.  They need to hear the gospel “sung” from the pulpit or lectern with the same beauty and energy that the most recent wave of praise and worship songs do. They need the gem of the gospel to be held up and turned so that every facet of Christ’s life and work shines as sufficient and satisfying to their deepest soul.

Like all of us, they need a bloodied Savior, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame.”  They need to see their own wreckage but also the One who was wrecked for them because they needed Him to be and who was glad to do it because He loves them.

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Beware a One-Sided Coin

A one-sided coin has the same face and back imprint and therefore always delivers the same result irrespective of who flips it.  It can be a handy tool for getting the answer you want or yielding the outcome you seek while appearing impartial.  This was the method of the villain Two-Face in Batman: The Dark Knight.

Bible study and Bible teaching can fall into a similar pattern.  For a variety of reasons all of us can fall into reductionism wherein we reduce the Bible down to one or two truths (often pleasant) and ignore or minimize the reality or importance of other (often unpleasant or  seemingly opposing) truths.  It is difficult, for example, for modern Christians to reconcile the love of God with the anger of God.   Hell is a particularly bothersome issue and one that many Christians ignore altogether.   But at what cost do we ignore the hard truths of the Bible?

In the article, Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age, Tim Keller cautions about the unforeseen dangers of ignoring the hard realities of Scripture:

…neglecting the unpleasant doctrines of the historic faith will bring about counter-intuitive consequences. There is an ecological balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed.

If an area is rid of its predatory or undesirable animals, the balance of that environment may be so upset that the desirable plants and animals are lost—through overbreeding with a limited food supply. The nasty predator that was eliminated actually kept in balance the number of other animals and plants necessary to that particular ecosystem. In the same way, if we play down “bad” or harsh doctrines within the historic Christian faith, we will find, to our shock, that we have gutted all our pleasant and comfortable beliefs, too.

The loss of the doctrine of hell and judgment and the holiness of God does irreparable damage to our deepest comforts—our understanding of God’s grace and love and of our human dignity and value to him. To preach the good news, we must preach the bad.

Leadership Journal. Winter 1997, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Page 42

How do you break one-sided coin habits?

  1. Broad reading of the entire Bible is a good place to start when trying to weed out the theological one-sided coins in your thinking and teaching.
  2. Cross-generational theological and devotional reading is another good way to bring some “ecological balance” into your soul and biblical world view.  C.S. Lewis used to advise students to never read two modern books back to back but rather form the habit of moving from “old” to “new”.  He reasoned that culture is always swinging along the pendulum from apex to apex without resting in the middle.  If you only read modern things, you’ll only encounter the questions modernity seeks to answer.  But there are other questions to be asked and that have been asked.
  3. Finally, community with brothers and sisters in Christ who ask difficult questions of the Bible and of each other is very helpful in weeding out prejudices rooted in my own understanding rather than an accurate understanding of the Bible.

Beware the one-sided coins in your perception and proclamation of the biblical God.  As I heard Tim Keller say in a sermon once, “If your God never has the right to offend you, it is probably because you have a ‘God’ you made up.”

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The Last Idol of the Heart

What keeps more people from seeking salvation in Jesus?  Is it their sins or their self-righteousness?  In The Method of Grace, George Whitefield cautions:

. . . .before you can speak peace to your heart, you must be brought to see that God may damn you for the best prayer you ever put up; you must be brought to see that all your duties — all your righteousness — as the prophet elegantly expresses it — put them all together, are so far from recommending you to God, are so far from being any motive and inducement to God to have mercy on your poor soul . . .

Before you can speak peace in your heart, you must not only be made sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart. The pride of our heart will not let us submit to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But if you never felt that you had no righteousness of your own, if you never felt the deficiency of your own righteousness, you cannot come to Jesus Christ. There are a great many now who may say, Well, we believe all this; but there is a great difference betwixt talking and feeling. Did you ever feel the want of a dear Redeemer? Did you ever feel the want of Jesus Christ, upon the account of the deficiency of your own righteousness? And can you now say from your heart, Lord, thou mayst justly damn me for the best duties that ever I did perform? If you are not thus brought out of self, you may speak peace to yourselves, but yet there is no peace.

It is a difficult hurdle to be sure.  David Brainerd was brought to this point.  While wrestling with himself and with God over the state of his soul he found himself trusting in his piety as security against “God finally casting him off”.  His thinking ran along the line that God would have more difficulty casting him aside after all he had done for God.  Yet, twas grace that taught his heart to fear: he came to the terrifying liberating truth that his Bible reading, his prayers, his acts of devotion were singularly devoted to his own well being and safety and not from love to God.  “As I saw that I had never [truly] done anything for God”, Brainerd wrote in his diary, “I had no right to expect anything from God but perdition.”

We are all tempted to say, at least to ourselves, “I’ve followed Jesus all my life!”  But, have I trusted Him?  Have I served Him for His own sake, for His own glory, for regard of His infinite worthiness?  Or . . . for me?

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.

O soul, learn to sing, “not what I feel or do,” then fly away to Him who lived the life you should have lived and died the death you should have died!  Say to Him and to yourself, “I needed you to die for me!”  And say to Him and to your own soul, “And, thank you that you were happy to do it!”

Sink in the need but rise in the joy of the love that casts out all fear!

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Rest

A thought on Hebrews 3:11 from Dr. Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan that hit me at 6:30 this morning while I was listening to a sermon of his.

Hebrews 3:11 “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” … (And I paraphrase) “God could think of no worse a punishment for his disobedient people than to never allow them to rest.  Rest is so integral to God’s perfect loving design for his children that he commanded them to take a day off.  (here was the punch)  By placing the Sabbath command in the top 10, God was saying that a civilization (or culture) that abuses  its people by overwork is as brutalizing as one that supports theft, or murder, or adultery.

Why that hit me was, I was returning from work at 6:30 a.m. and other than the 5 or so hours I was asleep last night, internally and mentally, I was “working”.

God was reminding me…,”Steven, my dear son, I ordained rest because I love you.  Be careful, I wasn’t kidding about it.  Work is a good thing but a terrible tyrant.  Your Brother died for you that you might not be enslaved to anything and to one day bring you to the rest that awaits.  Until then, rest in knowing that you are not your work but a beloved child of Mine.  Rest son.

Praying you rest this weekend!

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